Illustration by Tom McKeith Jane Doe with toe tag Illustration by Tom McKeith

There are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States at any one time. Family members and friends typically file missing persons reports with local law enforcement agencies in hopes of locating the person -- or at least getting closure in the event the story doesn't have a happy ending. And when medical examiners and coroners can't identify the deceased, the person is added to the ranks of the nation's John and Jane Does. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that there are approximately 40,000 unidentified human remains nationwide.

The lack of a public nationwide database where medical examiners can post information has hindered their ability to match an identity with a decedent. Some local governments created Web-based missing persons databases to list information about the dead, but a centralized location was needed -- one place where medical examiners and coroners nationwide could upload data about unidentified human remains and where the public could add further details about a missing person -- ideally creating a database that could link unidentified bodies with a name, a person and a past.

In 2005, the NIJ brought together federal, state and local law enforcement officials, medical examiners, coroners, forensic scientists, policymakers and victim advocates for the Identifying the Missing Summit. "As a result of that summit, the deputy attorney general created the National Missing Persons Task Force and charged the U.S. Department of Justice with identifying every available tool and creating others to solve these cases," wrote the NIJ's Charles Heurich via e-mail. "The National Missing Persons Task Force identified the need to improve access to database information by people who can help solve missing persons and unidentified decedent cases."

The solution was the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NamUs.gov, a Web-based database where government representatives and the public can upload and search information. Since going live in 2009, the system has helped close 19 missing persons cases and contains information about more than 6,350 unidentified decedents. However, a central issue remains: Only 1,100 of the nation's 17,000 law enforcement agencies use NamUs.

Mike Murphy, coroner of Clark County, Nev., thinks the small proportion of government users can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about the system and too much localized thinking. "People say, 'Well, why would the guy in Las Vegas care about the guy in Florida; Nome, Alaska; or wherever?'" he said. "Criminals are clearly transient in nature and we are an international community. So we have as high a possibility of our decedent being from somewhere else in the nation or world as we do of them being from our own backyard."

Starting Locally

In 2002, Clark County created an online missing persons database called Las Vegas Unidentified -- one of the models that helped shape NamUs. Murphy said there also were online databases in Fulton County, Ga., and Florida, but the sites couldn't communicate with one another. "It was kind of like wanting to clap and we were using one hand instead of two," he said. "We all were put on a committee, and they were looking at folks who were successful -- each of those sites was successful in their own right, but clearly we weren't reaching the audience that we could."

The NamUs.gov portal handles two issues related to missing persons cases: It provides an online location where family and friends can post information about a missing person, and it's a website where law enforcement agencies and medical examiners can upload data about an unidentified decedent. Both databases are searchable and public facing, and are designed to search for matches against each other.

NamUs.gov is divided into the Unidentified Persons and Missing Persons databases. The Unidentified Persons database redirects to www.identifyus.org, where the public can search information that medical examiners and coroners have uploaded. Searchable fields include sex, race, ethnicity, and the date, age and state where the person was last known alive. Case information for each unidentified decedent can be minimal to detailed depending on how much information was available to the medical examiner. The information can include: photographs, the date the body was found, estimated age, probable year of death, where the body was found distinctive features like tattoos, fingerprints, clothing, the DNA sample's status and the case manager's contact information.

The Missing Persons database connects the user to www.findthemissing.org, where the public can register to upload information about their missing family members or friends. Before a case is uploaded to the database, the information is verified and a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) number -- the official tracking number that can be obtained through a local law enforcement office or the FBI -- must be connected to it.

"NamUs gives family and friends a connection to their case and allows them to feel more involved. It allows them to search for possible matches," said Heurich, the NamUs program manager. "There are individuals who consider themselves 'cyber-sleuths' and will check for matches based simply on their interest in missing persons."

Interconnecting Systems

Clark County representatives post information about unidentified decedents to NamUs and Las Vegas Unidentified separately because the systems can't communicate with each other. "NamUs does not directly connect with any other law enforcement systems," Heurich said.

But it might connect with other federal databases in the future. "Currently there is an agreement with the FBI CJIS [Criminal Justice Information Services] Division to crosswalk or transfer information from NCIC into NamUs and vice versa."

Murphy thinks the interconnection with other federal databases is a big step forward and represents a change in thought process. "A lot of different systems that are out there have previously been closed or unattainable because of lack of technology, and the technology has changed so that in some instances they can crosswalk information; it automatically downloads depending on the system."

Murphy said it takes about 10 or 15 minutes to enter information into the system and its intuitive design makes it easy to use.

Matching the Missing

When NamUs detects a possible match between a missing person and an unidentified decedent, the appropriate law enforcement agency or medical examiner/coroner's office is contacted. Murphy said when Clark County is notified about a possible match, officials immediately begin the verification process. Since the county's Cold Case Unit was launched in 2002, Murphy estimated that 42 cases have been closed. Aside from identifying the decedent, in some cases the police have used the information to help with criminal investigations.

"There's a very strong possibility that some bad guys are going to get a knock on the door in the middle of the night and it's going to be, 'Guess what? You thought you got away with something 25 years ago, and that's not the case,'" Murphy said.

He also said matching a name with the deceased can be a slow process, especially with cases that have little information. Some unidentified persons listed on NamUs are decomposed bodies, so medical examiners are left with minimal information to post on the database.

"We believe that the light of hope burns eternally bright," Murphy said. "And what I mean by that is we may not solve that case today or tomorrow, but the building blocks -- the foundation that you do with systems such as this -- will pay dividends today, tomorrow and far into the future."

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.